Sunday, September 2, 2018

In Medjugorje with Julie

Two months ago, my wife, Julie, returned to the practice of the Catholic faith, after 33 years of being away. Her return journey started one year ago, on September 2, in Medjugorje, when she had some powerful experiences on Apparition Hill, where the initial apparitions of the Virgin Mary are said to have happened in 1981, and where many of the ongoing apparitions are also said to be taking place. Below are pictures from our experience in Medjugorje.

She wrote about the story of her return at her blog: The 32 Year Minute

Julie after her experiences on Apparition Hill.

In the home of Vicka, one of the visionaries. The home is now open for anyone as a place of prayer. The statue in the background marks the spot where Vicka is said to have experienced dialy visions of the Blessed Virgin Mary for years. The spot was charged with incredible spiritual energy.

The home of Vicka, one of the visionaries. The home is now open for anyone as a place of prayer.

The statue of the Queen of Peace at the site where the apparitions are said to have started. The statue was a gift of Korean Catholics to Medjugorje.

Pilgrims pray at the statue of the Queen of Peace on Apparition Hill.

Stuate of the Queen of Peace overlooking Medjugorje.

Stuate of the Queen of Peace overlooking Medjugorje.

Stuate of the Queen of Peace overlooking Medjugorje.

There is no path leading up to Apparition Hill. Pilgrims must climb over jagged rocks to reach the shrine above.

View from Apparition Hill.

On the third day of the apparitions, Marija, one of the visionaries, is said to have had a vision of Mary standing in front of a wooden cross on this spot on Apparition Hill. According to her, the vision relayed the following message: "Peace, peace, peace! Be reconciled! Only peace. Make your peace with God and among yourselves. For that, it is necessary to believe, to pray, to fast, and to go to confession." The wooden cross now at the site was placed there in later years to commemorate this vision.

On the third day of the apparitions, Marija, one of the visionaries, is said to have had a vision of Mary on this spot on Apparition Hill. According to her, the vision relayed the following message: "Peace, peace, peace! Be reconciled! Only peace. Make your peace with God and among yourselves. For that, it is necessary to believe, to pray, to fast, and to go to confession." A part of this message is on the plaque next to the cross in Croatian.

Plaque bearing words attributed to the Virgin Mary on the third day of the apparitions in 1981.

Crowds wait in preparation for an apparition of the Virign Mary to the visionary Mirjana, who is said to be experiencing apparitions on the second of every month.

Statue of the Queen of Peace by the Blue Cross, where Mirjana is always situated when she is said to be experiencing a vision of Mary on the second of each month.

Julie climbing up to the shrine on Apparition Hill. Given her weak back and knees, a climb like this would normally cause her a lot of pain. But she felt no pain during the climb or after she descended from the hill.

With Julie at the shrine on Apparition Hill.

The Church of St. James in Medjugorje. Interestingly, long before the alleged apparitions started, a church far too big for the town was constructed in the town center. The church was also named after St. James, the patron saint of pilgrims. Since the visions are said to have started, an estimated 40 million pilgrims have traveled to Medjugorje.

St. James Church in Medjugorje.

St. James Church in Medjugorje.

St. James Church in Medjugorje.

Interior of St. James Church in Medjugorje. Interestingly, no image was placed behind the altar in the original design. Perhaps an image of Our Lady of Medjugorje will go there one day?

Statue of the Virgin Mary inside St. James Church in Medjugorje. Some of the early visions are said to have taken place inside the church.

Stained glass windows inside St. James Church in Medjugorje.

St. James Church at night.

The exterior altar behind St. James Church.

Italian language Sunday Mass at the exterior altar behind St. James Church.

Many priests concelebrate at the Italian language Sunday Mass at the exterior altar behind St. James Church.

The exterior altar behind St. James Church.

Statue of the Virgin Mary inside exterior altar behind St. James Church.

Panel from a Rosary walk behind St. James Church.

Panel from a Stations of the Cross walk near St. James Church.

Abstract crucifix behind St. James Church.

Julie in Medjugorje.

Julie by the Blue Cross, where Mirjana is said to be experiencing visions of the Virgin Mary on the second of each month.

Statue of the Queen of Peace at the square in front of St. James Church.

Statue of the Queen of Peace at the square in front of St. James Church.

Statue of the Queen of Peace at the square in front of St. James Church.

Statue of the Queen of Peace at the square in front of St. James Church.

Statue of the Queen of Peace at the square in front of St. James Church.

Street sign in Medjugorje.

Street sign in Medjugorje.

The image of Our Lady of Medjugorje painted on the basis of descriptions by the visionaries. The image is displayed inside the social hall of St. James Parish. The visionaries say that the image they see is far more beautiful than the painting.

Sunset in Medjugorje.

Cross Mountain at the outskirts of Medjugorje, where a giant concrete cross was erected by the townspeople, decades before the apparitions are said to have started.

Cross Mountain.

The way up to Cross Mountain is also full of jagged rocks.

The way up to Cross Mountain is also full of jagged rocks.

The Stations of the Cross line the way up to Cross Mountain at intervals.

The view from Cross Mountain.

The view from Cross Mountain.

The giant concrete cross atop Cross Mountain.

At the top of Cross Mountain.

Statue of the Queen of Peace overlooking Medjugorje, the town where she so clearly reigns.

Saturday, September 1, 2018

Five Benefits of the First Five Saturdays Devotion

In 1925, Our Lady of Fatima requested a special devotional practice of the faithful, the First Five Saturday Devotion, whereby the faithful undertake to do the following on five consecutive Saturdays in reparation for the outrages committed against Our Lady's Immaculate Heart:
- Go to Confession
- Receive Communion
- Pray five decades of the Rosary
- Mediate for 15 minutes on the mysteries of the Rosary.

I will link to a full description of the First Five Saturday Devotion at the end of this post. Here, I want to talk about the benefits of undertaking this devotion.

1) Reparation: Perhaps the chief benefit of the First Five Saturday Devotion is making reparations for the sins of others, thereby helping them to become more open to God's grace in their lives. It is as if someone were in overwhelming debt, and we quietly paid it off for them, helping them to get a fresh start financially.

2) Our Hour of Death: Our Lady said to Sr. Lucia: "I promise to assist at the hour of death with the graces necessary for salvation." (See link below.) If we are dedicated to the First Saturday Devotion, Our Lady will protect us in the hour of our death.

3) Habit of Regular Confession: Observing the First Five Saturday Devotion is a great way to get into the habit of regular Confession. I would recommend not stopping at five consecutive Saturdays, but to continue the devotion throughout the year. By doing so, we have a structure for going to Confession at least once a month, which is important for advancement in the spiritual life. By going to Confession frequently, we get into the habit of taking stock of our spiritual life, of what we are really doing from day-to-day, rather than what we would like to think we are doing. Frequent Confession keeps us honest with ourselves and accountable.

4) The Blessings of Confession: Confession absolves us from sin and, if we are properly disposed, gives us the grace to change sinful habits that weigh us down and hinder our spiritual progress. Confession is also a powerful tool in spiritual warfare, in that the grace of Confession helps to bind and cast out through the power of Christ the evil spirits that we have let into our lives through our sins.

5) Learning to Meditate on the Rosary: Reciting the Rosary daily is a powerful spiritual practice. But frequent recitation can cause us to say the prayers on autopilot, without much conscious awareness. By taking time at least once a month to meditate for 15 minutes on the mysteries of the Rosary, we can develop the skills we need to continue to engage with each mystery more mindfully during the rest of the month.

The above are just some of the benefits of committing to the First Saturday Devotions requested by Our Lady of Fatima. Many others will, I am sure, become evident upon further reflection. For a fuller description of the history and nature of the devotion, please follow the link below:
The Five First Saturdays Devotion

Photo: The Sanctuary of Fatima, taken on my 2017 trip to Fatima.

Friday, August 31, 2018

How the Seven Sorrows Rosary Came into My Life

I discovered the Seven Sorrows Rosary devotion only recently and rather unexpectedly. In 2017, I was preparing to lead a Marian Pilgrimage to Portugal, Spain, and France. It just so happened that we scheduled our pre-departure Mass for the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows. On our pilgrimage, as we traveled through Portugal and Spain, we saw some powerful depictions of Our Lady of Sorrows – life-sized figures, dressed in beautiful garments, with seven swords protruding from Our Lady’s heart.

In the Gospel of Luke, the Prophet Simeon states: "Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted, and you yourself a sword will pierce, so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed" (Luke 2:34-35). The sword has been seen as a symbol of the Virgin Mary’s suffering. Historically, the Church has identified seven specific sorrows in her life, which are sometimes depicted with seven swords piercing her heart.

I took note of these imposing statues, but I did not think much of them, or of the underlying devotion, until we reached Santiago de Compostela. I was sitting at the Pilgrim’s Mass in the famous cathedral, when I started reflecting on just how much sorrow life entails. "Isn’t life one long Pilgrimage of Sorrow?" I pondered. That's when I thought of Our Lady of Sorrows, and I started reflecting on the theology behind the devotion. As the Mother of God, the Virgin Mary was more connected to Christ than any other human being, and therefore she shared in the suffering of Christ in a unique way. We can safely say that no human being, other than the human nature of Christ, suffered as much as Mary did. Therefore, she understands our sorrow full well, and, given that she is the Mother of the Church, she is always eager to help us if we call upon her.

I went away from that Mass with a sense of connection to this devotion. Later that night, as I was browsing in the shops of Santiago, I came across a statue of Our Lady of Sorrows, which I purchased for my collection of images of Our Lady. But as to just how I was to practice my newfound devotion, that answer came to me only after my return.

The same day I left on my trip with the pilgrimage group, a friend of mine had set out on a private pilgrimage to Italy, to walk in the footsteps of St. Francis. After we had both returned, we compared notes on our experiences. My friend, as it turns out, had visited the shrine of Our Lady of Sorrows in Italy, and, without knowing anything that was transpiring in my heart, she got for me a Seven Sorrows Rosary, a special type of rosary designed specifically for this devotion. She told me that she had never actually gotten a rosary before, but when she was at that shrine, she felt moved to get one for me.

Two days later, I received in the mail another one of these special rosaries from someone who had been on the pilgrimage with me. I felt like our Blessed Mother was telling me something. I quickly learned how to pray the Seven Sorrows Rosary, and I incorporated it into my daily prayer life.

In the three months following, the Seven Sorrows Rosary would be especially comforting for me. My father had been battling terminal cancer, and as he reached the final stage, I often thought of him as I reflected on the sorrows of Our Blessed Mother. I felt her give me the peace and strength I needed. I also introduced my father to this devotion, and he resonated with it at once. He started praying this special rosary while he still could in his final weeks. Though he was very weak by the end, he managed to get me a beautiful Seven Sorrows Rosary set for Christmas, as his last gift to me. During his final night, on the eve of January 2, I kept vigil by his bedside, praying. I had just finished reciting the Seven Sorrows Rosary when he passed. I am confident that Our Lady came for him to take him home to Our Lord.

I feel that I will always cherish this special devotion. I also feel moved to tell others who might have a similar inclination about the many blessings the Seven Sorrows Rosary can offer.

Thursday, August 16, 2018

How Medjugorje Transformed My Life

Almost a year ago, my wife and I traveled to Medjugorje for two days. The experience was powerfully transformative for both of us. In the video below, I describe how my life has changed since that brief visit to the town of Medjugorje.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

August 9, 1945: The Death of the Rome of Japan, the Heart of Catholicism in East Asia

Nagasaki was historically the center of Catholicism in Japan. In fact, the city was once known as the Rome of Japan and was seen as the center from which East Asia could be evangelized. St. Mary's Cathedral in the Urakami district of Nagasaki was the largest Catholic Church in East Asia. Until, that is, the second atomic bomb dropped by the United States on Japan exploded over the city of Nagasaki on August 9, 1945. The targeted area was just five hundred meters away from the cathedral. The cathedral, along with the entire district, was destroyed, as was the center of Catholicism in Japan.

The following articles describe the impact of the atomic bomb on Catholicism in Nagasaki:

The first one focuses on the miraculous survival of priests dedicated to praying the Rosary in Hiroshima, then recounts a similar miracle at Nagasaki.

The priests who survived the atomic bomb

The second describes the historical development of Catholicism in Nagasaki and offers a spiritual reflection on the destruction visited upon Catholicism there.

The Catholic Holocaust of Nagasaki — "Why, Lord?"

The third article describes the history of a statue of the Virgin Mary, pictured above, that survived the bombing of the cathedral.

1,000 Torch Bearers Carried the Virgin Mary in Nagasaki. Here's Why

The last entry is the Wikipedia article on Takashi Nagai, a Catholic physician, who survived the attack on Nagasaki, after which he led a life of exemplary prayer and service, earning him the title Servant of God, the first step toward sainthood.

The Life of Takashi Nagai

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Eulogy for My Father

My father died on January 2 of this year. Today would have been his 80th birthday. Below is the eulogy I wrote for the funeral back in January.

I will always remember my father for one amazing gift he gave me in the course of our time together. My dad was born in 1938 in a small Hungarian village called Tiszakürt. His name was Ábrahám Ferenc at the time. He lived through some tumultuous times. He witnessed factories exploding as the occupying Nazi soldiers were withdrawing from the country at the end of World War II, blowing up everything that could be of use to the Red Army then sweeping through Eastern Europe. He saw Hungary’s incorporation into the Communist bloc, as the hammer and sickle flag was raised by the Soviets, the new conquerors, throughout the country.

But my dad did not succumb to the lure of Communism. Instead he turned to his Catholic faith for guidance and direction, and he became active in the Church. As he grew older, his spiritual director persuaded him to join monastic life, and he became a Franciscan, although he did not feel a specific calling to this life. After several years with a monastic community, he discerned that the time had come for him to leave. He met my mom at the university, they got married, and they settled down in Budapest, the beautiful capital of Hungary. Three children were born of their union, my two sisters, Kati and Margit, and myself.

During the early years of my childhood, my dad worked as a journalist. But because he refused to join the Communist Party, his career was sabotaged, and, once again, he set off in a new direction with his life. He started a private business selling auto parts. The Communist ban on private property was just then beginning to thaw, but still my dad took a huge risk by starting a business of his own.

One day, in 1986, two weeks before Christmas, when I was thirteen, my dad and I planned to spend a weekend at the vacation home my family owned near Lake Balaton in Hungary. He picked me up after school on Friday, and as we were driving through the country, he told me some truly unexpected news. He said that he had gotten in political trouble with the Communist government, and he had to flee the country at once. He asked me to go with him, but he said we couldn’t tell anyone because then the government might find out, and his passport would be taken away. I said yes. The next day we left Hungary, and I wouldn’t return for fourteen years.

We went to Austria, where we were accepted into the elaborate refugee system the country maintained. We applied to receive asylum in the United States, and eight months later, we arrived in Seattle. At this time, my dad changed his name to Frank Abraham, and once again he started a new chapter of his life. As we moved into our first apartment, in Kirkland, he said, “If a year ago someone had told me that next year I would be painting my apartment in America, I would not have believed him.” But here we were.

He soon got a job here at St. Anthony Parish, and we moved to Renton, into a small rental house on Burnett Avenue, where we were to live for the better part of a decade. He started out as the custodian here at the parish, and in time he became the facilities director. He also took on the role of the St. Anthony IT guru, and he built and maintained the parish computer network, which, I understand, has been named after him in his honor. Our living room, in those days, would often be full of computer parts as he was building the latest machine for the parish.

In time, however, my dad was ready for yet another direction. He decided to start a new business, this time a private accounting firm. His marriage to my mom having been annulled, he also decided to seek a new partner. He met Melinda through an online dating site. He went to see her in China, and soon they were married. At this time, he changed his name to David Abraham.

His accounting business flourished over the years, keeping him constantly busy with work. But then, less than a year ago, he was diagnosed with terminal cancer. While he sought treatment for the symptoms, he did not fight the underlying illness. He made peace with his imminent passing. He worked on setting his affairs in order, and he prepared for the end – or, we should say, for the ultimate new direction that his life would take. The same faith that brought him help in those dark days of Communism now empowered him to face death without fear.

In his final days, I would sit by his bedside and pray the Rosary for him quietly. When he still could, he would join me for parts of the prayer, just like we had often recited the Rosary together when I was younger, and we still shared a home. My dad always had a strong devotion to the Virgin Mary. As death approached, he took great comfort in knowing that he would soon see our Blessed Mother. In his final weeks, we would sometimes talk about the state of the world and the future of humanity. I told him my view, and he strongly agreed, that God has sent the Virgin Mary as his special instrument of healing for our broken world today. He agreed with my belief that the Rosary, Our Lady’s specially chosen prayer, is the key to overcoming the innumerable problems besetting humanity today.

In these final weeks, I also introduced my dad to a special Marian devotion, the Seven Sorrows Rosary, which is a prayerful reflection on the suffering of Mary, the Mother of God, who, given her special connection to Christ, participated in a unique way in the suffering of her Divine Son. My dad instantly connected with this devotion, taking comfort, as I do, in knowing that our Holy Mother, who suffered more than any other human, other than the human nature of Christ, always knows the depth of our pain and anguish and always hastens to help us in our hour of sorrow, whenever we call upon her. As the end approached, my dad was very weak, but still he managed to get for me a beautifully crafted Seven Sorrows Rosary, which consists of a unique arrangement of beads, as his Christmas present, his last gift to me.

In the evenings, when I would say goodnight to him, I would always tell him, “Remember, the Queen of Heaven is waiting for you.” On his last night, I kept vigil by his bedside, praying the Rosary, all 20 decades, followed by the Seven Sorrows Rosary. Just after I finished reciting my prayers, he passed on from this life. I am confident that the Queen of Heaven, the Queen of Peace, did come to meet him to take him to our Lord.

Many have told me what a great blessing it was for my dad and for me to be able to share this time in his final hours. Many have said what a great gift I gave to him by spending so much time praying for him during his last night on earth. But I feel that I received the greater gift from him. True, throughout his life, my dad made many mistakes. He often frustrated me, or upset me, or even hurt me, sometimes deeply, sometimes in ways that were hard for me to forgive. But despite his many flaws and shortcomings, he gave me one excellent, extraordinary gift, for which I will be forever grateful. He fostered within me a love of Our Lady, our Immaculate Mother. In his final hour, I was able to share with him the fruit of his gift by praying for him fervently to the all-holy Queen of Peace.

I am confident that my dad is now feasting with Our Lady at the heavenly banquet of Christ, so beautifully described in the Book of Revelation, together with my sister Margit, who preceded him in the transition to eternal life, and with his brother Sándor, and their parents, and their many loved ones who had gone before them. One day we will join them there, resting and rejoicing with them in unending bliss, unending peace, unending and absolute contentment.

When the cancer came for my dad, his body succumbed rapidly. But I believe, as the Church does, that the death of our body is not the end of our story. Not only does our soul live on for all eternity, but just as Christ rose from the dead, and our Blessed Mother was assumed body and soul into Heaven, so also we will be made whole, our body and soul reunited in the resurrection of the dead. In the words of Job, proclaimed in our first reading, and so beautifully put to music by Handel in his magnificent work, the Messiah, which my dad dearly loved:

I know that my Redeemer liveth,
and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth.
And though worms destroy this body,
yet in my flesh shall I see God.
(Job 19:25-26)